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Cadet earns leadership award, scholarship to attend medical school

Cadet 1st Class Sirri Akaya poses outside Fairchild Hall. She won the Black Engineer of the Year AwardCadet 1st Class Sirri Akaya poses outside Fairchild Hall, Jan. 31, 2022. She recently won the Black Engineer of the Year Award for Military Student Leadership. The U.S. Air Force Academy senior plans to attend medical school next year. (U.S. Air Force photo by Justin Pacheco)

By Blaire Brush
U.S. Air Force Academy Strategic Communications 

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo – Cadet 1st Class Sirri Akaya fell in love with biology in high school and has never looked back. She’s scheduled to graduate this June from the U.S. Air Force Academy with a degree in biology and a Health Professionals Scholarship Program slot for medical school, evidence that love of biology has taken her far. She also just added the Black Engineer of the Year Award for Student Military Leadership to her resume. The awards and accolades are something she said she is still getting used to.   

“At first I felt, ‘do I deserve this?’” said Akaya. “I’m still working through that, but understanding I deserve the accomplishments because of my hard work is a big thing for me.”  

Biology professor Dr. J. Jordan Steel nominated Akaya for the BEYA recognition and sings her praises in the classroom and beyond.  

“Sirri is involved across our institution, and I am amazed at how well she balances everything and seems to excel in it all,” Steel said. 

Lessons in leadership 

Like many cadets, Akaya balances leadership, classwork and extra-curricular activities. Akaya has held leadership positions at the squadron and group levels, helped facilitate the Tactical Combat Casualty Care training for all senior cadets as a member of the cadet first responder team, and took home a bronze medal in the 2021 international iGem competition. Each position and experience taught her something new about leadership.  

“As honor NCO, I learned how to navigate others’ vulnerabilities,” she said. “Being squadron superintendent taught me how to balance compassion and discipline. As group communication NCOIC, I learned followership and effective motivation.”  

It was the potential for learning and growth that brought Akaya to the Academy.  

“I knew coming here helped you achieve a certain kind of growth as a leader and a person,” said Akaya. “I saw that in my brother.”  

Her brother, 2nd Lt. Ameka Akaya, graduated from the Academy in 2021. They are the first in their family to serve in the military, but service is something that was instilled in them by their parents who immigrated to the United States from Cameroon and are both nurses. 

“Being in the military aligns with the way I was brought up in that you are giving yourself to something bigger,” said Akaya. “The selfless service concept really always resonated with me. It always felt right to me.”    

Value of mentors 

While service has felt like a good fit, Akaya said she didn’t always feel like she fit in.  

“I never had any black doctors,” she said. “When I got to the Academy, I didn’t know any black officers. I didn’t see people who looked like me in groups I wanted to be a part of.”   

Through her time here, she’s found more and more people like her doing what she wants to do.   

“Finding mentors who look like me has been encouraging and inspiring,” she said. “It’s easier to say, ‘oh I can do that.’”  

One of those mentors is 2nd Lt. Alicia Alexander, class of 2021, currently attending medical school at the University of Chicago.  Akaya hopes to be the same kind of mentor to other young women who want to attend medical school. Some of the advice she gives to young cadets now: listen to your inner voice.    

“If I listened to others’ negativity or other outside pressures, telling me I couldn’t do something, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” she said. “You have to figure out what’s best for you and what is important to you and put that in front of the negative voices that come from outside influences.”  

Akaya accepted her BEYA award last week. She was among a group of cadets who attended the Black Engineer of the Year STEM conference in the Washington, D.C. area.  

Cadet 1st Class Sirri Akaya examines a specimen in the biology lab at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Black Engineer of the Year Akaya, winner of the Black Engineer of the Year Award for Military Student Leadership, examines a specimen in the biology lab at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Jan. 31, 2023. (U.S. Air Force photo by Justin Pacheco)